Post-classical history


Medieval Europe came of age in the twelfth century as also, it will be argued, did the Christian church. Growth, development, expansion, maturation and even affluence are all relative. Accepting that as a premise, we can still say that the twelfth century experienced all of these in a marked way. More and more land came under cultivation as woods were levelled, marshland filled and marginal lands made arable. No one knows for certain whether the growth in population created the need for more food supply or whether the increased food supply contributed to population growth. When farmers could grow more than subsistence required, the possibility of commerce was opened up. Selling the excess to towns, which were growing in number and size, provided the seller with actual money with which he could buy town-made goods, such as finished cloth. Commerce was the essential ingredient in defining a town, and commercial towns soon developed a merchant class and an artisan class, both of which organized themselves into guilds, which had a religious flavour. This rural–urban commercial nexus was the case particularly north of the Alps. Not just London, Paris and Cologne, but places like Worms, Bristol, Tours, Angers and dozens of other towns developed as places of robust commerce. Most importantly, the great towns of Flanders – Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, Lille and Arras – became centres of an international trade in textiles. The fields of England and Wales, many of them until recently woods, were now dotted with sheep, owing in large part to the work of the Cistercian monks (whom we shall soon meet more fully) as England became the largest wool producer in Europe and the principal supplier to the looms of Flanders. South of the Alps the story was somewhat different. There maritime cities developed thanks to an expanded commerce with the East. The crusades had opened up sea lanes, and luxury items (e.g. silks, spices) were imported. Ports such as Genoa, Pisa and, above all, Venice thrived on this trade. A vast market in international trade was held in the French province of Champagne, where fairs attracted merchants from much of western Europe, who came there to deal in a wide variety of goods. Tin from England, cloth from Flanders, horses from Lombardy, spices from Syria via Italy, furs from Scandinavia and much else were bought and sold at what was Europe’s greatest wholesale market.

International commerce demands some form of international banking. Notes guaranteeing actual money were used to facilitate business. Incipient capitalism needed capital, and bankers loaned money at interest, a practice condemned by the church since money could not fructify and, in any case, it was the duty of every Christian to assist others in need without receiving anything – like interest – in return. To satisfy the need for investment capital, Jewish money-lenders, principally, stepped in and oiled the wheels of commerce. Only later did Christians find arguments to allow their entry into banking free of charges of usury, but Lombard bankers and the great house of Medici were centuries away.

Perhaps as a consequence and clearly as a concomitant of these economic developments were sweeping cultural changes. Educational focus shifted from the monasteries to the towns. Secular schools (i.e., schools run principally by the secular clergy), clustered near cathedrals and other great churches, became centres of a new learning. Paris with its three schools stood above the rest, but notable schools also existed at Laon, Rheims, Tours, Regensburg, Northampton and elsewhere, where the fame of masters attracted students. Universities were to develop later from some of these schools. The curriculum stressed logic and grammar: how to think and how to write. Fuelling this intellectual ferment were texts of the ancients, newly translated into Latin, which began to enter into the West in ever increasing numbers. Translations of ancient Greek texts from Arabic texts were made in Spain; translations were made from Arabic and Greek texts in Sicily. The result was a torrent of scientific, mathematical and philosophical texts. Aristotle was only partially known before, but from the 1130s new translations of logical works began to appear, and by 1240 nearly all his works, including his ethics and metaphysics, were in the hands of Western students. Apart from the schools, a literature in the vernacular blossomed as these languages became the principal vehicles for literary expression. El Cid was being recited in Spanish, the Nibelungenlied in German and the Chanson de Roland in French. And the Arthurian legend entered into world literature. In the south of France troubadours sang songs of courtly love, a love largely unrequited. An increasingly affluent age was enjoying the finer things in life. And before the end of the century Gothic churches would begin to appear.

In this dynamic environment the church continued to live its life: babies were baptized, couples married, dying men and women received the last rites and the traditional words of Christian burial were spoken over their bodies. Yet in the practical life of Christians new forms developed and old forms changed as religious orders sprang up and devotional practices played a larger role in the daily living of the Christian faith. Popes continued to look more and more like great princes, and the legacy of the First Crusade haunted the West as two further crusades were (unsuccessfully) fought in 1144 and 1189–91.

Popes and anti-popes and emperors

With the reform papacy in place in the early twelfth century and with fairly amicable relations with the German emperor after the Concordat of Worms (1122) one would expect gentle breezes and full sails for the popes. Such was not to be the case. Internal problems centred about the question of who was pope, and external problems centred about the question of what role the emperor should play in Italy. Uncertainty, turmoil, disruption and even armed violence accompanied the process of resolving these questions, and there was little that was edifying in the process.

The papal election in 1124 was to have repercussions to be felt for decades. The death of Calixtus II only two years after he had brought peace between the papacy and the empire exposed once again the vulnerability of papal elections to the interest of rival Roman families. At that time, the rival families were the Frangipani and the Pierleoni. The majority of the cardinals supported the Pierleoni candidate and elected Celestine II. Meanwhile, a minority supported the Frangipani candidate and elected Honorius II. While Celestine was being installed and the hymn of thanksgiving (Te Deum) was being sung, the Frangipani broke into the basilica with swords drawn. They violently tore the papal mantle from Celestine’s shoulders and forced him to resign. Honorius also resigned but was soon elected by the cardinals, and the intimidated Celestine agreed to accept this new election. Schism had been avoided, but at the next papal election it became a reality. In 1130 as Honorius lay dying, the Fran-gipani family, which had supported his election, feared that the Pierleoni would gain control of the next election. Honorius’s frail body, still clinging to life, was moved to the monastery of St Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill. The convention concerning papal elections was that an election should not take place until after the burial of the pope. Sometime during the night of 13–14 February, Honorius died and his body was immediately buried at the monastery. An election by the Frangipani cardinals followed at once. This middle-of-the-night election by a rump of the college of cardinals produced Innocent II, the manner of whose election was to haunt his pontificate. Within hours of this election the majority of the cardinals elected a cardinal member of the Pierleoni family, who took the name Anacletus II.

Western Europe was soon divided in a schism which lasted for eight years. Generally speaking, Innocent II gained support of Christendom north of the Alps, where Christian kings – Louis VI of France, Lothar of Germany and even Henry I of England – acknowledged him as pope. The great transalpine churchmen rallied to his cause: Abbot Suger of St Denis (Paris), Peter the Venerable of Cluny, St Norbert, archbishop of Magdeburg, and, especially, St Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux. The latter, the most effective spokesman for Innocent’s cause, was moved not by a conviction of the canonical validity of Innocent’s election but by the belief that Innocent was better suited to be pope. Anacletus II was acknowledged as pope in Rome and in southern Italy, where he entered into an alliance with Roger of Sicily, the Norman king. It was only with the death of Anacletus in 1138 that the schism ended. The triumphant Pope Innocent summoned the bishops of the Latin West to the Lateran Basilica for a general council. Perhaps as many as 600 bishops and abbots journeyed to Rome in 1139 for the reforming Second Lateran Council – one even walked all the way from Scotland – but the council produced little new and Innocent used it to act vengefully against the late Pope Anacletus by annulling all his ordinations. Four years of relative calm ensued, but a storm was not far away.

When the storm came, it was a violent storm, which saw armies pitted against armies and which, when stripped of all excesses of rhetoric, was really about who would control Italy. In a general way, it can be said that Italy was divided into three parts. In the south the power of the Norman kings extended from Sicily in a broad swathe across the Italian boot. Central Italy, with territories stretching northward along the Adriatic coast, formed what we may now call the Papal States. North of this was a patchwork of city-states, each with a hub city and surrounding territories, some having extensive territories (e.g. Milan, Pavia, Cremona); over much of the north the German king-emperor held nominal authority. It was a time-bomb ticking. All it needed was an ambitious emperor, and he came in the person of Frederick, whose red beard gave him the name by which he is known to history, Barbarossa.

Two popes entered into conflicts with Frederick Barbarossa, Hadrian IV and Alexander III, and their conflicts were not about theology or the spiritual meaning of life but were essentially about political matters, particularly about the relationship between pope and emperor with Italy the focus of their conflicts. Nicholas Brake-spear, fresh from successes in reorganizing and reforming the church in Scandinavia, was the unanimous choice of the cardinals in 1154 and became the only English pope, Hadrian IV (1154–59). His was not a tranquil pontificate. In the city of Rome itself the ‘senate’ had proclaimed a republican commune under the sway of the reformer Arnold of Brescia, who preached evangelical poverty and inveighed against the wealth of the church. Arnold was forced by Pope Hadrian to flee the city. He was soon captured by Frederick Barbarossa and handed over to the Roman Prefect, who summarily executed him and then threw his ashes into the Tiber. Soon thereafter the pope crowned Barbarossa as Emperor Frederick I (18 June 1155).

Ten days before the imperial coronation, ominous signs of things to come are visible, at least from our vantage point. Frederick and Hadrian met each other at Sutri, north of Rome: the austere Englishman from Hertfordshire and the handsome, vital German from Swabia. It was an awkward moment. By tradition, protocol required Frederick to lead the pope’s mule. This he refused to do. Whatever the reason for this – there could simply have been a misunderstanding by Barbarossa – three days later he performed the ritual act. It was an ill omen. Once crowned, Emperor Frederick faced a hostile Roman commune and returned to Germany with not totally happy memories of his visit to Rome.

Eager to consolidate his power north of the Alps, Barbarossa convened a diet (assembly) at Besançon in October 1157. In the meantime, Hadrian, facing the Normans to his south without imperial support, had little alternative but to enter into alliance with the Norman king of Sicily, William I. To the imperial diet, presided over by an emperor unhappy with this papal-Norman alliance, the pope sent two legates, one, Rolando Bandinelli (the future Alexander III), who read the pope’s letter in Latin, which was translated by Frederick’s chancellor into German. In that translation it appeared that the pope was claiming the right to confer the empire as a benefice from the pope to the emperor, thus subjecting emperor to pope. So angry was one of the German nobles on hearing this that he drew his sword, but Frederick intervened and ordered the legates to return to Rome. Later, but too late, the pope explained that he meant the Latin word beneficium not in the legal sense of a ‘benefice’ but simply as a ‘benefit’. But the damage had been done.

Frederick now turned the attention of his large army to the wealthy Lombard cities, over which he wanted to exercise more than mere nominal power. The pope, now allied not only with Sicily but also with Milan, clearly set himself against the emperor’s ambitions by threatening Frederick with excommunication. With tensions at a high point and an imperial army in Italy, Hadrian died unexpectedly on 1 September 1159.

Another disputed election and another schism followed. The election of Rolando Bandinelli as Alexander III (1159–81) could not have been more provocative to Frederick I: this was the very man who had insulted the imperial office at Besançon. Five pro-imperial cardinals elected Victor IV (1159–64). The ensuing schism was to last nearly 20 years. Victor and his two successors received virtually no support outside the empire, whereas Alexander III was widely recognized as pope even by the reconciled kings of France and England, Louis VII and Henry II. (It was the pope’s need of Henry II’s support that complicated Alexander III’s response to the Becket crisis. See chapter 9.) For three years Alexander lived in France, for much of the time at Sens. The resolution of the schism occurred not by quiet negotiations but on the battlefield.

Encouraged by Alexander, the northern cities, led by Milan, formed the Lombard League to oppose the emperor. Two years later the armies of the Lombard League, in one of the major battles of medieval history, thoroughly routed the imperial army at Legnano. So great was the defeat that it was thought that the emperor himself had been slain, until, without banner and shield, he came straggling into Pavia, an emperor almost beyond recognition. Peace with the pope soon followed (July 1177), and the schism was at an end.

To mark its end, Alexander convened a council (Third Lateran Council, 1179). Its chief long-term accomplishment was the reform of papal elections, left virtually unchanged since 1059: it gave each cardinal an equal vote and required a two-thirds vote for election. For the next 200 years the papacy was not troubled by disputed elections and (except for a brief hiccup in 1328) the challenge of anti-popes, and this procedure, with only the slightest of modifications, still remains in force. The council also forbade tournaments and even denied Christian burial to those dying in tournaments. Alexander III died in 1181 and Frederick I died by drowning in 1190 in Asia Minor as he led a large German army in a futile attempt to recapture Jerusalem from the Turks (Third Crusade). He had arranged, in 1186, a marriage between his son Henry and the Sicilian princess Constance, sister to the king of Sicily. From this marriage, in time, came the involvement of German emperors in southern Italy, a state of affairs at odds with the political interests of the popes.

If these disputes of the twelfth century between pope and emperor appear to the reader to be matters of politics rather than religion, who can gainsay that? We see the pope as one political player among others in the struggle for power in western Europe, and religion had little to do with it. A papal defence would claim that the pope needed to be independent and free from the coercion of secular rules in order to exercise his sacred mission, and he thus needed strong papal territories in central Italy to guarantee that independence. For the truly religious movements of the time we need look beyond Rome to see the profound changes that affected the living of the Christian life.

New religious orders

The twelfth century witnessed critical developments in the practice of the Christian faith. New religious orders and new forms of religious devotion produced a flowering of practical Christianity, far removed from the seemingly sordid world of papal politics. Historians may debate the reasons for these extraordinary developments – a thriving economy, pressures of demographic growth, maturing of the forms of religion, an individual quest for more than what the material world can give. They may even propose various names to describe this phenomenon – reform, revival, renaissance, even reformation. Yet, whatever the reasons and the names given, the reality is beyond dispute: a religious enthusiasm seldom, perhaps never, witnessed before in the (by then) long history of Christianity. Changes in the life lived by men and women in religious vows (which we, perhaps inexactly, call ‘the religious life’) were an essential expression of this enthusiasm and near its epicentre.

The traditional religious life was lived for centuries by men and women following the Rule of St Benedict. At the opening of the twelfth century we can see two forms of Benedictine monasticism. In the first place, there were hundreds of monasteries, each independent, united with others only in their use of the same rule and the same garb, the black habit that gave them the name Black Monks. When Benedictine monasticism is referred to for this and later periods, the reference is to this form of monastic life. The other form, which has been met already (chapter 7), was really an order, subject to the authority of the abbot of Cluny. Scores of priories and thousands of monks all over western Europe owed their obedience to him. Apart from this unusual form of organization, these monks followed the Rule of St Benedict with an emphasis on silence and liturgical prayer. They were simply called Cluniacs. The Columban form of monasticism had receded from its great height of the sixth and seventh centuries and, by the twelfth century, survived virtually only in Ireland. Hermits leading solitary lives remained a constant feature of religious life, but they were always few in numbers. This settled state of affairs was to be transformed in the course of the twelfth century, not beyond recognition – far from it – but, one might think, with a more attractive diversity of shapes and forms and, above all, with newly infused spiritual vitality.

New religious orders came into being in the twelfth century, chief among them the Augustinian canons and the Cistercian monks, but there were also other, smaller yet influential orders. What must be said, above all, about the Augustinian canons is that they were canons and not monks and that they more than any of the other new orders of monks constituted a break with past forms of the religious life. Canons were essentially priests who lived in a community and who normally exercised the care of souls in some way. Those who followed a rule were called Canons Regular (regula, rule), while the others were Canons Secular (saeculum, world). A word must be said about the so-called Rule of St Augustine. The traditional story goes that St Augustine of Hippo (354–430) wrote a letter to his widowed sister to encourage her and the other women who lived in a religious community. Within a short time, still in the fifth century, the text of that letter was changed: the gender was changed from female to male and additions were made, aimed at providing an orderly life for a male community. Much scholarly opinion now believes that the masculine form of the rule preceded the female form. In 1118 some of the more detailed parts of the text were deleted, and what remained was the ‘Rule of St Augustine’. It was this rule that was adopted by the Canons Regular, who thus became known as Augustinian canons. Unlike Benedict’s rule, this rule contented itself with general principles, leaving details to be filled in by customary uses. It provided for a life lived in a monastery – large houses generally became known as abbeys, smaller ones priories – by men vowing to live an unmarried life in obedience to their abbot (or prior) and without property of their own. A moderate life resulted. Meat was not absent from their table, and their form of work tended to be more intellectual than manual. The very flexibility of this rule proved to be its greatest asset. Hundreds of Augustinian monasteries were founded within a few decades in Germany, England, France, Spain and Italy, usually modest foundations with modest endowments and modest ambitions. In Spain, they undertook the relief of the poor and the ransom of captives from the Muslims. In England they had large monasteries at places like Colchester and Oxford and literally scores of small priories, numbering in time well over 300 in all. In addition, there were important hospitals such as St Bartholomew’s at Smithfield, London, as well as less well-known hospitals with but a prior and a few canons, following the rule as best they could. Many of the larger houses provided priests for parishes in the neighbourhood. The ability of the Augustinian canons to lead a common life and to adapt that life to other needs made them successful journeymen in the monastic movement. Nothing glamorous or even faintly flashy about them: they said their prayers and led lives of practical Christianity. One medieval commentator summed up their life:

The habit they wear is neither sumptuous nor ragged, and they thus avoid pride and the affectation of holiness. They do not need many things and content themselves with modest expenditures.

For the sparkling splendour of the religious life we must look elsewhere to the other great order founded at this time.

The achievements of the Cistercian order must stand out as the success story par excellence of the medieval church. In 1098 a score or so of somewhat discontented monks left a Benedictine abbey in Burgundy and went deep into a wooded valley in search of a simpler, more primitive monastic life. The valley was Cîteaux and from that valley came the Cistercian order. These discontented monks had no thought of founding a new order, merely the wish to have for themselves a more meaningful monastic life. They found this meaning in the utter simplicity of a poor community situated in a remote place. And so it might have remained, a single house or, at most, a few houses of monks who found their vocation in an austere setting, but events were to lead to greater things. In 1112, the son of a local aristocratic family arrived at Cîteaux, and his biographers would want us to believe that it was this arrival of St Bernard at Cîteaux that was the defining moment in the early history of the order. They probably exaggerate somewhat – for multiple causes are usually at work in human history – yet there can be little doubt of the profound impact of St Bernard on the growth of the order. Even before Bernard, Cîteaux had successes in recruitment, yet his arrival with a retinue of brothers and noble friends breathed fresh life into this young monastery, and he was only 22 years old. Three daughter houses were established by Cîteaux in 1113, 1114 and 1115, and in that last year it was the young Bernard, only three years a monk, who was sent to found a new monastery at Clairvaux in Champagne. He was to rule as abbot there for 38 years. During that time Clairvaux established 68 daughter houses, and the charismatic Bernard became the most influential churchman in Europe.

The growth of the Cistercian order, of which the Clairvaux family was but a part, still amazes. Twenty monks or so went to Cîteaux in 1098. By 1152 there were 333 Cistercian abbeys, a growth so rapid that in that year a halt was called to further expansion. Among these foundations were Rievaulx and Fountains in England, Melifont and Baltinglass in Ireland, Tintern and Neath in Wales, Melrose and Kinloss in Scotland as well as many others in the British Isles. There were Cistercian houses founded in Poland, the Scandinavian countries, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Bohemia and Portugal. The impetus was so strong that the establishing of new

Map 11 Cistercians and other orders: major houses founded by 1150

foundations, halted in 1152, began anew – 14 new houses in 1162 alone – and by the end of the century there were 525 Cistercian houses. This remarkable growth in the number of houses was more than matched by the increase in the number of monks at individual houses. Rievaulx in Yorkshire is a good and representative example. Founded in 1132 as a daughter of Clairvaux, at the death of Abbot Ailred in 1167 it numbered 140 choir monks and 500 lay brothers: they must have filled the abbey church for the abbot’s funeral.

The mention of choir monks and lay brothers (conversi) at Rievaulx reveals something of the social and economic character of these monasteries. Almost without exception wherever Cistercian monasteries were founded in the twelfth century, they were founded in marginal areas. The hills of Wales and vast tracts of Yorkshire, much of them forested, were mostly unused or underused. Monks settled in coastal Flanders (modern Belgium) amidst the inhospitable sand-dunes (Abbey of the Dunes). Benefactors did not hesitate to hand over wasteland to these pious monks. What the monks needed was a workforce not of paid labourers but of monks committed to manual labour: what they needed were lay brothers. A two-tier system quickly developed. There were the choir monks, who were educated and devoted themselves to the singing of the offices in the choir of the abbatial church. And there were the lay brothers, who took vows and were monks but of a different sort. They lived and ate together, separate from the choir monks. They spent much of their time working in the fields. When they prayed in the church, they sat not in the choir but in the nave and used a few memorized prayers. They remained by statute illiterate: they were not permitted to learn to read and write. What may appear to us as an unattractive life proved to be immensely attractive to contemporary men. These conversi came by the thousands from the homes of the peasantry of Europe to live lives of simple piety and hard work. And they came, generation after generation, although in declining numbers from the late thirteenth century until the time of the Black Death (1340s), after which they virtually vanished. This unpaid workforce tamed the wilderness. The fields of Yorkshire soon became vast sheep runs. And sand-dunes became the home of a fleet of Cistercian ships, as western Flanders itself became the centre of northern European commerce, and the monks there farmed 25,000 acres of productive farmland. The white monks were becoming very rich very fast.

Not all the land taken by the monks was uninhabited, and the clearing of land of human beings (not unlike the later clearances of the Scottish Highlands, where landlords preferred sheep – and profit – to people) reveals a darker side of the Cistercian achievement. In Lorraine they did not hesitate to destroy existing settlements. Forced evictions occurred on the lands of Fountains Abbey, where possibly as many as 23 settlements were depopulated by the monks, and another 46 settlements seem to have been cleared by the monks of other Yorkshire monasteries. Some resettlement might have occurred, but the evidence is incomplete. Small wonder that one contemporary critic scathingly complained, ‘They raze villages, destroy churches, evict parishioners and even brazenly cast down the very altars; they level everything before the plough.’ And another critic commented that they ‘make a solitude so that they may be solitaries’.

The emergence of this new monastic force led, almost predictably, to conflict with the existing monastic establishment, with Benedictine monks and, more especially, with Cluniac monks. What in other circumstance might have been a very minor incident led to a serious conflict between the Cistercians and Cluniacs. A young man related to Bernard, a first cousin, entered Clairvaux, but, finding the life too severe for his liking, he left and entered Cluny. When Bernard heard of this, he went into a barely controlled rage and wrote a letter to the young man, not only seething with anger but also, for most readers, lacking in elemental charity. No one ever accused St Bernard of a surfeit of gentleness and kindness in his letters. The prior of Cluny, said the irate Bernard, was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who commended feasting and condemned fasting, who called voluntary poverty wretched and cast scorn upon fasts, vigils, silence and manual labour. By such sophistries the too credulous boy was led astray and led off by his deceivers. He was brought to Cluny and trimmed, shaved and washed. He was taken out of his rough, threadbare and soiled habit, and he was then clothed with a new neat one.

Although Cluny may have become somewhat lax in the 200 years from its founding, Bernard was objecting not only to its laxity but to its very being. Even a stricter Cluny was, to Bernard, inferior to Cîteaux. Later, Peter the Venerable, the wise and moderate abbot of Cluny, felt constrained to answer Cistercian attacks. He called the Cistercian critics ‘a new race of pharisees’, who, in holding themselves superior to all others neglect that chapter of the Rule of St Benedict on humility, where it is written that a monk should consider himself and believe in the depths of his soul that he is inferior to all others. Cluny was far from perfect even by its own standards – in time, Peter the Venerable instituted reforms – yet the seeming lack of charity by the Cistercians in their self-righteous judgement of the lives of other monks must make the detached person wonder what had happened to an order founded on a Charter of Charity (Carta caritatis). Initial fervour had apparently given rise to spiritual pride, and, by the end of the century, it was an order little different from the others in evident signs of holiness.

Such decline, although frequent and hardly unexpected in religious institutions, was not universal. Of the Carthusians, founded in 1109, it is famously said, ‘never reformed, because never deformed’ (nunquam reformata quia nunquam deformata). The original community was driven by an avalanche from its place high up in the French Alps. They then settled on lower ground at La Grande Chartreuse, which gave them their name. There and in the monasteries that followed numbers were intentionally limited to a score or so. Theirs was a life of simplicity and austerity lived in solitude, a life for the few. Each monastery was essentially a community of hermits. The hermit-monks lived each in his own little house with a bijou garden, and there in his ‘cell’ he spent his days and nights, food being brought to him through a hatch each day. The monks went to a monastic church for Sunday Mass, after which they had a communal meal. For evening and night offices they also came together in church. Apart from these occasions each lived his own life, confined to his own space, where he would contemplate the meaning of the Christian life. There too some work would be done, quite commonly the copying and illuminating of manuscript books. The order’s growth, unlike the Cistercian order, was in no way dramatic: by the sixteenth century there were just over 200 Carthusian houses (‘charterhouses’) in all of Europe, only nine in England. A modern visitor to Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire – actually, to its ruins – with little imagination can picture the physical arrangement of a typical Carthusian priory. It was, later, at the London Charterhouse (at Smithfield) that Thomas More was to try his vocation, and it was its sainted prior, John Houghton, who was butchered in an act of extreme barbarity at the order of Henry VIII.

Other new religious orders besides the Augustinians, Cistercians and Carthusians fill out the picture. The flexible Augustinian rule was adopted by the followers of St Norbert at Prémontré, who lived a life more severe than the Augustinians. These Premonstratensians (or Norbertines) resembled in many ways the Cistercians in their simplicity and austerity and in their emphasis on withdrawal from the world in silence and prayer. These ascetic followers of the Rule of St Augustine, by the middle of the thirteenth century, had 500 houses in places ranging from Ireland to Palestine. They first came to England in about 1143 and established Newhouse Abbey in Lincolnshire and, by the time of the dissolution, had over 30 houses there.

It was also the flexibility of this same rule that gave rise to another emphasis in the life of Canons Regular: in 1108 the famous scholar William of Champeaux – he was Peter Abelard’s teacher – with royal support established the abbey of St Victor in Paris, which attracted men who became scholars (particularly theologians such as Hugh of St Victor), preachers, poets and ascetics, men who followed the Rule of St Augustine. They lived a common life with a strong liturgical element. The Victorines, as they came to be known, grew beyond Paris as other abbeys of Canons Regular adopted their way of life, and by the end of the twelfth century the order had reached its zenith with nearly two score houses in France. The original Parisian house survived to the end of the eighteenth century, when it fell victim to the excesses of the French Revolution.

There had been houses of religious women for centuries. Almost from the beginning of monasticism, holy women formed communities. The sister of St Augustine lived with other women in a community at Hippo. St Benedict’s sister, Scholastica, has been called the first Benedictine nun: she lived in a community of women a few miles from Monte Cassino. In the years following the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans a number of high-born ladies became abbesses of nunneries, which were peopled with the daughters and widows of the aristocracy. Also, ‘double monasteries’ had existed in Christian Gaul as early as the seventh century: men and women lived separately and generally worshipped together in the monastic church. In reality, most of these double monasteries were nunneries to which male communities were attached so that the men could serve as priests at the altar or perform manual and business tasks. The head was almost always a woman, frequently of a princely family, who ruled both communities. By the eleventh century such institutions had virtually disappeared or were essentially changed. When St Norbert established at Prémontré the order of canons, he provided a nunnery for women next to the male house, yet the nuns acted not as co-equals to the canons but almost as their servants, sewing and doing laundry for the men. Even such humble roles attracted hundreds of women. Norbert’s successor separated the two communities in such a way that the nuns were required to move to a new home some distance away. Even these Norbertine nuns failed to survive much beyond the twelfth century, since it was forbidden to admit new nuns in the late 1190s. Benedictine nunneries continued much as they had done for centuries just as houses of Benedictine monks continued. But the establishment of the Cistercian order presented a problem. Women were drawn to this life of austerity and simplicity and even established themselves in communities, living a Cistercian life, but the order considered itself a male order and was adamant in refusing to accept such communities into their order. In fact, when the order finally admitted convents of women in the early thirteenth century, it was done only reluctantly and, apparently, under pressure from powerful, even royal, patrons. In practice, it is not always clear which nunneries were incorporated into the order and which merely followed the Cistercian customs and traditions. Such developments are but part of a marked growth in the number of nunneries in general. This development, once thought to pertain to the thirteenth century, is now known to have existed in parallel to the growth of male institutions in the twelfth century. In France and England alone about 400 new nunneries were established in the years between 1070 and 1170. The enthusiasm for the religious life in the twelfth century was clearly not an exclusively male phenomenon.

Two new orders of women stand out in the twelfth-century picture, each with its peculiar characteristics, one French and one English: Fontevrault and Sempringham. Robert of Arbrissel (d. 1117), a Breton hermit turned itinerant preacher, attracted to himself the poor and outcast of society, particularly women in search of a new, often reformed, life. Some quite possibly were prostitutes and former concubines of priests, others the victims of life’s misfortunes, even lepers. About the year 1100 he established for them a house at Fontevrault (near Saumur and the Loire River). A subordinate house for religious men was placed under the authority of the female abbess. The abbey of Fontevrault quickly prospered, and an early tally recorded a population of 150 nuns and 50 brothers. The original emphasis on catering to the spiritual needs of the less fortunate continued for some decades, but, almost inevitably, the monastery’s very success undermined this early intention as aristocratic ladies showered gifts upon Fontevrault and soon took over. Principal among these women was Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II of England, who, in the final hours of her life, actually took the veil as a nun of Fontevrault. She was buried there as later were her husband, King Henry II, and her son King Richard I. The original crude buildings by then had been replaced by the fine buildings which visitors can still see. In time, houses were founded in other parts of France, four in England (mostly under royal patronage) and even some few in Spain: a total of nearly 50 before the death of the first abbess in 1149.

In a remote Lincolnshire village the local priest, eager to encourage girls of the parish to devote themselves to the spiritual life, built a structure for them against the north wall of his church. Seven girls (puellae) lived as anchoresses there, access to them possible only by a window, through which food was brought to them by lay-women. From these beginnings in 1131 was to grow the only specifically English religious order, sometimes called the Order of Sempringham (after the village) and sometimes called the Gilbertine Order (after the priest).

The small structure at Sempringham by 1139 had become so inadequate to the numbers who wanted admission that a priory was constructed nearby for their use. In that same year a daughter house was established. Already the servant-women who brought the food had become lay sisters and male workers had become lay brothers. The attempt of Gilbert of Sempringham to have the Cistercians accept his houses failed. He soon provided his nuns with a rule, and an independent order emerged. Canons, who would live with the lay brothers, were now introduced to serve the liturgical needs of the nuns, and double houses resulted. As many as 12 such

Plate 7 Cloister walk, Fontevrault. Reproduced by permission of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

communities, all founded in the twelfth century, survived until the dissolution under Henry VIII. At each house two communities were to live quite separately, a priest coming to the nuns’ church to say Mass, but neither priest nor nuns could see each other, even at communion. The male community had its own oratory and cloister. Such rigid separation of the sexes probably came as a response to the unspeakably barbarous punishment imposed, about 1150, on a pregnant nun and her lay-brother lover at Watton Priory and to the charges of sexually scandalous behaviour raised by rebellious lay brothers in 1165. But the introduction of canons posed a threat to Gilbert’s original design, for after 1150 all new priories were priories of canons and the later history of the double houses shows that real authority lay in the hands of the canon prior.

The new religious orders of the twelfth century undoubtedly tapped a contemporary need. The response was widespread and cut through every social and geographical part of sociey. The desire to go to the wilderness at Cîteaux or to become enclosed at Sempringham or to work in the fields wearing a monk’s habit cannot be totally explained in social and economic terms nor in terms of mass psychology, as real as all these undoubtedly were. Although we cannot see into the deep recesses of another’s soul, we should give room here, in some measure at least, for a higher vision, an idealism framed by religious belief, a willingness to endure physical and emotional hardships for spiritual reasons. It should be immediately added that all of these new orders – saving always the Carthusians – by the end of the twelfth century had diverted from their early intentions. The Cistercians had become wealthy landowners, who often depeopled their lands. The Augustinian canons had settled into a comfortable routine that would characterize their subsequent history. The Premonstratensian canons, once committed to preaching, had become focused inward almost exclusively on their own spiritual development. Fontevrault had been taken over by aristocrats and Sempringham by males. While institutions were changing, so too were the religious devotions and practices of western Europe, to which we should now turn.

Popular devotion and practical piety

Virtually every village in western Europe in the twelfth century had a church building, usually a parish church but sometimes only a chapel. They were mostly simple structures in the Romanesque style, and scores still remain, for example, in parts of rural France where they were not replaced when the Gothic style became the fashion. The village church served as the centre of Christian life for the local community. Its walls were covered with coloured paintings of subjects from the Bible and from the lives of the saints, and in the most prominent place was a large crucifix, not a mere cross, but a cross with the body of the dead Christ, the emphasis on his physical sufferings and humanity. The local church was the usual place that babies were baptized, couples married and the dead dispatched to their eternal reward, and it was more than that. It was the place that the Christian community came to mark the Lord’s Day and the great feasts of the Christian calendar.

The central act of Christian worship in all the churches and chapels of Europe was the Mass, often called the eucharistic celebration or simply the Eucharist, and it now had taken on the decided aspect of a drama. Ambiguity had existed for some time about what the Eucharist celebrated. Was it the Last Supper, when the apostles shared bread and wine? Or was it the Crucifixion, when Christ offered his life in propitiation for the sins of the whole human race? The second view was now in the ascendancy. The faithful were attendants rather than participants; they watched rather than shared in the Mass. And what they wanted to see was the bread wafer (called the host) and chalice of wine at the moment of consecration, when these elements, they believed, were transformed into the body and blood of Christ. They wanted to ‘see’ Jesus, which they did as the priest elevated the consecrated elements. It was what they had come to church for. There was a reverential hush within the church as bells pealed above it. And in order that the moment of seeing Jesus could be sustained, in some places the priest was encouraged to prolong the elevation. In time the exposition of the consecrated host was done outside Mass in a monstrance. In the thirteenth century the feast of Corpus Christ (Body of Christ) was instituted by the pope, and it was to become perhaps the most popular religious festival of the later Middle Ages.

The consecrated host was viewed as having miraculous powers. There was the bleeding host and the host bearing the sorrowful face of Jesus and the host providing the sole source of nourishment for a pious communicant. At Arras on Easter Sunday in 1176 a woman was said to have taken a communion host from her local church by wrapping it in a cloth. She secreted it in a well, but the host shone through the cloth, and, when it was removed, it had blood stains. It was quickly placed in the cathedral – the writer Gerald of Wales saw it there on the Sunday after Easter – and the Host of Arras soon became a popular object of pilgrimage. St Bernard of Clairvaux is said to have cured a bewitched man by holding above the man’s head a sacred vessel containing consecrated hosts. Stories of miraculous cures multiplied and became the staple of preachers.

By the twelfth century extra-liturgical dramas were added to the liturgy. The earliest, the Quem quaeritis, although known in a simple form earlier, was now frequently performed at Easter with different persons playing the parts of holy women and an angel at the empty tomb:

‘Whom seek ye (Quem quaeritis) in this tomb?’
‘We seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.’
‘He whom ye seek is not here, but go quickly to Peter and his disciples and tell them “Jesus is risen”.’

From the core of these three lines or words like them there developed at the Easter liturgy a dramatic presentation with costumes, gestures, lamentations and additional dialogue. Other feasts soon had their dramatic scenes. For Christmas the Easter text was changed to read,

‘Whom seek ye in the manger?’
‘We seek our saviour, Christ the Lord, a child wrapped in swaddling clothes.’

And so also there were dramatic presentations for other feasts and other biblical stories: the story of the Magi from the East, the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, the story of Daniel (scenes of handwriting on the wall, fiery furnace, lion’s den) and many others. Removal of such dramas from the church building soon followed, and in these developments we should probably see the birth of the modern drama.

Beyond the Eucharist and its associated devotions and practices were the dramatic growth and vitality of devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was simply called the Virgin or the Blessed Virgin or the Blessed Virgin Mary, since it was believed that by divine intervention Jesus was conceived not by man but by the power of the Holy Spirit. She was called mater dei (mother of God), which is an incorrect translation of the Greek θεοτόκος (theotokos), bearer of him who is God. She was also called in LatinSancta Maria (St Mary). In France she was usually called Notre Dame (Our Lady) and in Italy Madonna (My Lady). The multiplication of names, in a way, reveals the ubiquity of Marian devotion, its familiarity, its penetration to a place near and, for some, at the centre of Catholic devotional life. The twelfth-century phenomenon was not limited to one area of Europe: she was venerated in Scotland and Ireland as well as in the Mediterranean lands. Every Cistercian monastery from Cîteaux and Clairvaux in the French heartland to Strata Florida and Cymner in remotest Wales bore the title of St Mary. Every cathedral in France, no matter what title it had previously, became a cathedral dedicated to Notre Dame. In Sicily the magnificent cathedral at Monreale was dedicated by the Norman king William II (1172–89) to the Virgin, and a contemporary mosaic shows the king offering the new cathedral to her with the approving hand of God above. In England almost half of the twelfth-century monastic dedications were to St Mary, and this figure excludes the Cistercian houses.

St Bernard in hymn and sermon sang and preached her praises as the mediator whom the most wretched of sinners could approach to intercede for them at the throne of her son. Associated with St Bernard is the hymn Ave maris stella:

Ave, mar is Stella,

Hail, star of the sea,

dei mater alma,

Nurturing mother of God,

atque semper virgo,

And ever virgin,

felix coeli porta.

Happy gate of Heaven.

Sumens illud ‘ave’

You, who took the ‘ave’

Gabrielis ore,

From Gabriel’s mouth,

funda nos in pace,

Reversing the name ‘Eva’,

mutans ‘Evae’ nomen.

Grant us peace.

And the Latin poet Adam, a canon of St Victor’s Abbey in Paris, composed a dozen or so hymns to the Virgin. Among them,

Imperatrix supernorum,

O empress of the highest,

superatrix infernorum,

Mistress of the lowest,

eligenda via coeli,

Chosen way to heaven,

retinenda spe fideli,

Fastholding by faithful hope,

separatos a te longe

Those separated far from you,

revocatos ad te junge

Now called back to you, unite

tuorum collegio.

In your band.

When Dante in the Divine Comedy approached the divine throne in paradise, he chose St Bernard as his guide to present him at the throne of the Virgin, so that she would introduce him into the presence of the very God. In Bernard’s mouth the poet placed the words:

Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile ed alta più che creatura,
termine fisso d’eterno consiglio,
tu sei colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti sì, che il suo fattore
non disdegnò di farsi sua fattura.

(Paradiso, canto 33)

Dante’s prayer of St Bernard, in turn, was translated in part by Geoffrey Chaucer and placed in the mouth of the second nun in the Canterbury Tales:

Thow Mayde and Mooder, doghter of thy Sone,
Thow welle of mercy, synful soules cure,
In whom that God for bountee chees to wone,
Thow humble, and heigh over every creature,
Thow nobledest so ferforth oure nature,
That no desdeyn the Makere hadde of kynde
His Son in blood and flesh to clothe and wynde.

(‘The Second Nun’s Prologue’, ll. 36–37)

A figure not just for poets, Mary was a common subject for visual artists, particularly sculptors. The commonest image of the Virgin had her seated on a throne, her lap serving as a throne for her son. Hundreds of statues of this image survive from France alone. Later came the image of the son sucking at his mother’s breast. From Carolingian times the cathedral of Chartres had a special shrine dedicated to Notre Dame. It had the most treasured relic of the Virgin, what was believed to be the gown which she wore when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her. With this background, it is no wonder that she was given a prominent place in the iconographical scheme for the cathedral’s grand west entrance, the Royal Portal, when it was built in the middle of the twelfth century. Above each of the three doors there is a story in stone, and together they tell a single story. The tympanum above the central door has Christ in glory, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. The left tympanum has the figure of Christ with angels about him as he ascends into heaven. We are, of course, reading the story backwards, for above the right door is the story of the coming of Jesus (the ‘Incarnation’, God-taking-flesh). This tympanum has the Virgin crowned and seated on her queenly throne, her seated body serving as the throne for the young Jesus.

At Senlis the sculptors took yet another Marian motif for their west portal, a motif long popular in the East, the dormition (not death) of the Virgin and her assumption into heaven. St Bernard wrote a series of sermons on the assumption of the Virgin. Devotion to Mary’s assumption led to the dedication of the new cathedral at Salisbury to her under that title in the next century. Devotion to her under the title of the Immaculate Conception can be found at the same time, but controversy was to attend the theology supporting it for some centuries. The Immaculate Conception is not to be confused (as it often is) with the Virgin Birth. It simply held that alone of the human race Mary was exempted from original sin: she was conceived in her mother’s womb without the stain of the sin of Adam, that is, conceived immaculately. Bernard and Thomas Aquinas both opposed it on theological grounds, yet it persisted, was approved in the fifteenth century with its own Mass and was finally defined as a doctrine of faith by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

This outpouring of Marian devotion raises questions not easy to answer. The most obvious question is why? Why did the Christian church and people place Mary on such an exalted level in their devotional lives? And why did they do so with such fervour? Why was this devotion so widespread, apparently universal, gainsaid by none, not even by the apparently impious and wicked? An easy answer is that it was imposed by a celibate clergy, for whom Mary was the woman in their lives. Some would suggest a latent, subconscious sexual component. Yet there is no evidence that Marian devotion was imposed on an unwilling people. On the contrary, it was greedily accepted by married men and by women alike. Critics who would impose a feminist analysis – for example, a near universal yearning for a female goddess, particularly in a rural society – have not been persuasive. Others see in Marian devotion an oedipal component for both males and females. Besides these is the faith factor: the belief that God was seen to intervene in human affairs and, if one prays to God through his mother, the prayer will be heard, for the son Jesus will not contemn the will of his mother, who has the role of mediatrix. Such explanations can only point towards an answer.

Plate 8 Virgin and Child, tympanum, west portal, Chartres Cathedral. Reproduced by permission of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

This chapter has come a long way from popes and emperor in dispute, the political side of the medieval church, to humble Christian men and women in remote churches, kneeling in prayer before the Eucharist and before images of the Virgin. Two sides of the church: the church at its most institutional, involved in affairs of this world, and the church in its devotional, affective role, touching deep the souls of men and women. Both sides formed essential parts of the historical church in the Middle Ages.

Further reading

The classic work on the twelfth century is Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1927; often reprinted). Still a good read for its enthusiasm and romantic flavour is Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres(Washington, 1904; also often reprinted), a better book than some modern critics would allow. For a general study of Frederick Barbarossa the reader may find useful Peter Munz, Frederick Barbarossa: A Study in Medieval Politics (London, 1969) and, in a more general context, Alfred Haverkamp, Medieval Germany, 1056–1273 (trs H. Braun and R. Mortimer; Oxford, 1992). Barbarossa’s nephew, Otto of Freising, wrote an official life, The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa (tr. C.C. Mierow; New York, 1953). A fascinating Latin poem about Frederick Barbarossa’s campaigns in Italy has been translated into English with an introduction and bibliography, Barbarossa in Italy (New York, 1994). For the only English pope see Brenda Bolton and Anne J. Duggan, eds,Adrian IV the English Pope (1154–1159): Studies and Texts (Aldershot, Hants., 2003).

An important book of historical analysis (with comprehensive bibliography) is Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1996), which focuses on the religious orders. Key chapters on the religious orders of this period, particularly the Cistercians, can be found in C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (3rd edn; London, 2000). An excellent treatment for one region is Janet Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain, 1000–1300 (Cambridge, 1994). The distillation of a lifetime’s work can be found in Adrian H. Bredero, Bernard of Clairvaux: Between Cult and History (Eng. tr.; Grand Rapids, MI, 1996), which contains a description of the issues involved in the Cluniac–Cistercian controversy. A remarkable collection of essays is Brian Patrick McGuire, ed., A Companion to Bernard of Clairvaux (Leiden and Boston, 2011). David H. Williams has written about the Cistercians from their founding to the Black Death in The Cistercians in the Early Middle Ages (Leominster, Herefordshire, 1998). Constance Hoffman Berman argues that the Cistercian movement developed into an order only in the second half of the twelfth century: The Cistercian Evolution: The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe (Philadelphia, 2000). An excellent study of the Cistercians in a region outside France is David H. Williams, The Welsh Cistercians (Leominster, Herefordshire, 2001). Other regional studies include Brian Patrick McGuire, The Cistercians in Denmark: Their Attitudes, Roles, and Functions in Medieval Society(Kalamazoo, MI, 1982) and James France, The Cistercians in Scandinavia (Kalamazoo, MI, 1992). For the social consequences of Cistercian land policy on local people see R.A. Donkin, The Cistercians: Studies in the Geography of Medieval England and Wales(Toronto, 1978). Gerald Bonner defines the state of modern scholarship on the Rule of Saint Augustine in his introduction to the relevant texts: The Monastic Rules (Hyde Park, NY, 2004), which contains texts and commentary. The rule is available in ‘an interpretative translation’ (Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI, 1996). For religious women there are two useful collections of articles: Derek Baker, ed., Medieval Women (Studies in Church History, Subsidia, vol. 1, Oxford, 1978) and John A. Nichols and Lillian T. Shand, eds, Distant Echoes (Medieval Religious Women, vol. 1, Kalamazoo, MI, 1984). See also Bruce Venarde, Women’s Monasticism and Medieval Society: Nunneries in France and England, 890–1215 (Ithaca, NY, 1997), which provides data about the growth of communities of nuns; Sally Thompson, Women Religious: The Founding of English Nunneries after the Norman Conquest (Oxford, 1991); and Penelope D. Johnson, Equal in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France (Chicago, 1991). Definitive on its subject is Brian Golding, Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertine Order, c.1130–1300 (Oxford, 1995). For Robert of Arbrissel the reader will want to see Jacques Dalarun, Robert of Arbrissel: Sex, Sin, and Salvation in the Middle Ages(tr. Bruce L. Venarde; Washington, 2006), which has a review of recent scholarship by the translator. Professor Venarde has also provided a translation of contemporary and near contemporary documents in his Robert of Arbrissel: A Medieval Religious Life(Washington, 2003). A detailed monograph is Berenice M. Kerr, Religious Life for Women, c.1100–c.1350: Fontevraud in England (Oxford, 1999).

On the Eucharist see Gary Macy, The Theologies of the Eucharist in the Early Scholastic Period (Oxford, 1984) and The Banquet’s Wisdom: A Short History of the Theologies of the Lord’s Supper (New York, 1992); also Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1991). On Marian devotion in the Middle Ages one must start with the magisterial study of Miri Rubin: Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (London, 2009). Jaroslav Pelikan has written a series of well-informed, discursive essays, Mary through the Centuries (New Haven, 1996). Michael P. Carroll, The Culture of the Virgin Mary (Princeton, 1986), presents a psychoanalytical explanation. An examination of sermon material can be found in Donna Spivey Ellington, From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul: Understanding Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Washington, 2001). Rachel Fulton explores at length the ‘intellectual basis of this devotion’ in From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200, Part II (New York, 2002), and more briefly in her essay ‘Mary in Christianity in Western Europe, c.1100–c.1500’ (Miri Rubin and Walter Simons, eds, The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 4; Cambridge, 2009). A collection of papers on Marian devotion is The Church and Mary (R.N. Swanson, ed.; Studies in Church History, vol. 39; Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2004). For the iconography, particularly the intercessory imagery; see Catherine Oakes, Ora pro nobis: The Virgin as Intercessor in Medieval Art and Devotion (London and Brepols, 2008). More generally, the reader will find that Bernard Hamilton’s Religion in the Medieval West (London, 1986) provides an excellent explanation of what Christians believed and how they expressed their religious beliefs at this time.

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